How Ritchie Torres won a battle for the Bronx in the heat of the pandemic

BRONX, N.Y. — Ritchie Torres has a clear path to Washington, but getting to this point has not been an easy ride.

The 32-year-old city councilman is set to head to Congress to represent a South Bronx district where nearly a third of residents live below the poverty line. And when New York was the nationwide epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, it was the Bronx that endured the highest rate of cases.

Torres, an openly gay, Afro-Latino product of public housing, says the issues facing a community that was already struggling before the outbreak drove unemployment over 20 percent are personal. And while his diverse roots and unabashed progressivism would seem to fit Torres firmly among the wave of young people of color who have won House seats in recent years, he has also faced friendly fire from his fellow liberals.

“I know what it’s like to struggle with depression. … I know what it’s like to have family members who have contact with the criminal justice system. … I know what it’s like to grow up in poverty to be raised by a single mother who had to raise three children on minimum wage,” Torres said in an interview with Yahoo News earlier this month.

“So, when I think about the greatest challenges affecting the South Bronx … these are not simply abstractions that I studied intensely as a policymaker,” he added. “These are struggles that I’ve lived deeply in my own life.”

Torres’s experience with coronavirus was personal too. He came down with COVID-19 as the pandemic took hold in March. It kept him off the campaign trail for about a month. These days, his uniform consists of a suit and a city-issued mask.

While Torres’s district is nearly two-thirds Latino and only about 3 percent white, it is also home to Arthur Avenue, the epicenter of the Bronx’s historic Italian community. While Torres is vocal about the urgent needs faced by many in the district, he also is adamant that “the narrative of a burning Bronx” that took hold in the national imagination during the ravages of the crack epidemic is “frozen in the 1970s.” He cites the Bronx’s “Little Italy,” with its sidewalk cafés and vibrant cultural mix, as proof.

“I think Arthur Avenue demonstrates that America works,” Torres said. “People from every walk of life can coexist. … The reality on the ground is more unified than our politics.”

In this, March 19, 2018, file photo, New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres addresses a news conference in New York. (Richard Drew/AP Photo)
New York City Council member Ritchie Torres addresses a news conference in 2018. (Richard Drew/AP)

Torres is Puerto Rican, but he speaks with a distinct New York twang that makes him sound like an especially erudite version of an extra from a Martin Scorsese mob movie. That Bronx patois is peppered with stats and references to famous philosophers.

As he discussed housing, which is his “No. 1 priority,” Torres referred to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to argue it is “a human right.” Torres describes his focus on public housing as a direct result of his own experience growing up in the projects.

“I would not be here were it not for the stability that affordable housing gave me and my family,” Torres said. “I owe it to my neighbors. I owe it to my fellow tenants in the Bronx to ensure that the affordable housing stock endures for the next generation of Americans.”

In 2013, Torres became the youngest member of the City Council and the first openly gay candidate to hold legislative office in the Bronx. Public housing played a part in his first moment on the national stage. During the 2016 election, Torres wrote to the major presidential candidates and invited them to visit housing projects in New York. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders took him up on the offer. Torres later became one of Sanders’s delegates at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

“I’m on a mission to elevate housing to the center of national politics,” he said.

To that end, Torres is calling for “a comprehensive social safety net that establishes housing as a human right.” He wants to see federal housing vouchers that ensure no one pays more than 30 percent of their income on rent. On Sept. 18, Torres held a press conference in the borough’s Monterey Houses to call on the federal government to provide $3 billion to eliminate lead poisoning in public housing. New York City’s projects have long had a major backlog of repairs, and some studies have posited a link between lead poisoning, learning disabilities and crime.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (2nd R) speaks after a walk through the Howard Houses in the Brownsville neighborhood with City Council member Jumaane Williams (2nd L), Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams (L) and City Council member Ritchie Torres (R) in the Brooklyn borough of New York April 17, 2016. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Bernie Sanders speaks after a walk through the Howard Houses in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, left, City Council member Jumaane Williams, second from left, and City Council member Ritchie Torres, right, in 2016. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Housing is a nationwide problem. In 2010, a federal Department of Housing and Urban Development report indicated that, as of that year, the nation’s public housing stock needed about $26 billion worth of repairs and improvements, and that those costs would grow about $3.4 billion per year after that. Despite this, under President Trump, HUD requested just $1.8 billion for capital needs in 2017 while acknowledging it was “minimum funding” amid the “ongoing deterioration of America’s public housing stock.”

Since then, HUD has made cuts. Earlier this year, HUD Secretary Ben Carson proposed a budget that would eliminate all funds for “capital projects,” such as renovations and modernization, in public housing. The White House and HUD did not respond to requests for comment about Torres’s call for funding to address lead poisoning.

Along with his desire to see more money go to public housing, Torres supports expanding the child tax credit, as well as Sanders’s signature universal health care policy, Medicare for All. He describes the coming election as a major turning point for Democrats, who have a shot to enact a sweeping progressive agenda akin to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal if they win the presidency and take Congress.

“We will have the makings of an FDR moment. We will have a once-in-a-century opportunity,” said Torres.

Despite this platform, Torres has ended up at odds with other liberals, including the two most famous progressives in the country, Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents a neighboring district. During the crowded Democratic primary, both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez endorsed one of Torres’s opponents, Samelys López. Neither Sanders nor Ocasio-Cortez nor López responded to requests for comment.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, speaks during a news conference outside a U.S. Postal Service post office in the Queens borough of New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. (Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks during a news conference on Aug. 18. (Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Torres also sparred with the New York City arm of Democratic Socialists of America, which backed López and has become a major force in Big Apple politics in recent years. Last month, news broke that the group distributed a questionnaire for next year’s crop of City Council candidates that asked if they would “pledge” not to travel to Israel. Torres, who says he supports a “two-state solution,” responded by saying he would not want to “associate with any organization” that calls for a boycott of Israel, as he believes it “has a subtext of anti-Semitism.”

“I support the coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians,” he explained. “That, to me, is a progressive position.”

DSA did not respond to a request for comment.

And Torres took a shot at his likely future colleagues in Washington in July when he published an op-ed lambasting “antiquated” traditions at two major Democratic groups, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. As one of the first Afro-Latinos in Congress, Torres said he would be unable to join both groups.

CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass responded by indicating the group would “figure out how we deal with” the situation and suggested it was “not perceived well by members of the caucus” that Torres aired his concerns publicly before approaching them. Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro did not respond to a request for comment. A source close to Bass said she and Torres had a Zoom call after he raised the issue and have remained in touch.

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, conducts a news conference on the Jobs and Justice Act of 2020, which aims to increase the upward social mobility of Black families, and help ensure equal protection under the law, in the Capitol Visitor Center on Wednesday, September 23, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Black Caucus at a news conference on Sept. 23. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Generally, when asked if he sees himself as a progressive, Torres says he doesn’t “obsess about words.”

“I, as an elected official, have to be measured by what I deliver for my constituents,” he said. “I refuse to get caught up in self-aggrandizing labels.”

With the Democratic primary behind him, Torres has a smooth ride to Capitol Hill — although he will face a Republican opponent, Patrick Delices, in November. Delices points to Torres’s calls for police reform and the persistent issues in the community as evidence he is “not the right choice” for the district.

“Throughout his political career, he has failed to solve the problems that plague the people of the Bronx,” Delices said of Torres.

The district, however, is one of the most solidly blue in the country. The current congressman in the district, Rep. José Serrano, whose impending retirement is leaving the seat vacant, generally beat his Republican rivals with about 90 percent of the vote.

That doesn’t mean Torres never faces any resistance. On Sept. 18, as he walked with Yahoo News, a white man in a car rolled by shouting accusations that Torres is more focused on his career than the neighborhood.

This, though, was hardly a typical reaction. Many residents enthusiastically support Torres and have personal stories of how his council office has helped them.

As we strode along Arthur Avenue, Ricci Campbell rode up in a motorized wheelchair to congratulate Torres on his victory in the primary. Campbell, a neighborhood fixture who hands out autographed Xeroxed copies of a photo from his stint as an extra in the movie “Grease,” said Torres’s team helped him win a case in housing court.

“I’ve known him for years already,” Campbell said as he gripped Torres’s arm.

Frank Franz, who is the treasurer of a local Business Improvement District centered on Arthur Avenue, credits Torres with helping the street’s Italian restaurants secure seed funding to start an annual pizza festival.

“Neighborhood people … on public assistance and people who own multimillion-dollar businesses will both reach out and support him equally,” Franz said of Torres.

Bronx City Councilman Ritchie Torres speaks during a news conference, outside 666 5th Avenue regarding the Kushner Companies allegedly falsifying work permits with the City's Department of Buildings, in New York, U.S., March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Bronx City Councilman Ritchie Torres speaks during a news conference in 2018. (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

Perhaps nowhere is Torres’s support in the neighborhood more clear than at the Dennis Lane Apartments, an affordable housing development where he has hosted weekly food distribution events since the pandemic began. On Sept. 18, Torres handed out masks and boxed meals to a line of residents that stretched around the block.

Tania Guerrero, who lives in a nearby building, came to the event with her teenage son. She said it was her second time coming after losing her job during the pandemic.

“It helps us a lot,” Guerrero said in Spanish. “It’s very important because of where we’re at with the coronavirus.”

As a DJ played Gloria Estefan, a pair of Jamaican women named Ms. Raymond and Ms. Orton described Torres as a regular at the apartment.

“He’s always been for my building. He supports us,” Raymond said.

Orton, who claimed she has lived in the building for almost 50 years, said she had never seen another politician visit the area.

“Only Ritchie! Only Ritchie!” she exclaimed. “Only he comes here.”

Charlotte Manus, a 78-year-old retiree who lives on the building’s top floor, agreed that other politicians haven’t visited and said Torres “comes all the time.” While she voted for Torres, Manus is somewhat reluctant to see him go to Washington.

“Is he coming back?” she asked, adding, “Don’t stay too long!”

Torres certainly insists he won’t. He said the “most important lesson” he learned from his mother is to “never forget where you came from.”

“My roots are in the Bronx first and foremost,” Torres said. “I’m never going to allow myself to become intoxicated by the trappings of power in Washington, D.C. I’m only going to spend as little time in Washington as necessary, and I’m always going to head back home.”


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